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After a few days in Taichung, my Taiwanese friend Olivia and I traveled to Hualien, a naturally-preserved, remote beach town on Taiwan’s east coast. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and we spent a few days biking, walking along the beach and drinking beers on the rocks, while listening to the waves crashing meters from our feet.

We were also intrigued by Taroko National Park, where we could hike through a gorge, visit some hidden hot springs and photograph the gorgeous views. Olivia and I are both notoriously terrible with directions (we once got lost for hours in lower Manhattan when we first moved to NY–where the streets are mainly structured in a grid) so we hopped on the shuttle bus, sans scooter. (Olivia also has never driven a car, so I, with no experience driving a scooter, would have had to cart her ass around the park.) After 45 minutes on the shuttle, we stepped out of the bus and were taken aback by the luscious greenery, low-hanging clouds, and peaceful ambiance of the park.

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Near the Shakadang trail.

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Taroko Gorge.

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The lines on the rock prove that the water level was much higher in the past. I almost dropped my phone here. Had it happened, I would have been very sad.

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Striking colors on the rock.

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By lunchtime, we had hiked around the gorge for a couple hours. Olivia had seen hot springs listed online, but it wasn’t printed on the tourist brochure that we were given at the beginning of the day. We set out on a mission to find these semi-secretive springs anyway. After eating lunch at Tianxing, the last station where Olivia offered to correct the “Engrish” translations on the menu in exchange for free bamboo rice, we embarked on our journey by foot.

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“Numbness Old Woman Ban Curd” is perhaps the best direct translation that I’ve ever come across.

One of the ladies from the restaurant pointed us in the right direction, after telling us that it would be a really long walk. “Taiwanese people always say that,” we agreed, continuing along the road with the light breeze on our backs. After prodding along for a good fifteen minutes, we approached a taxi driver, chatting with his friend in a parking lot below the road, and Olivia asked him if we were still moving in the right direction.

“You’re walking there?” he asked us incredulously. After giving us some directions, he applauded.

“Hmmm, maybe it is really far away,” we wondered.

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Finally, after asking a couple more people along the way, we saw the house, then the trail, then the stairs leading to bathrooms. We excitedly climbed the moss-covered steps to a hanging bridge and gasped.

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Upon sight of these natural hot springs, smack in the midst of a river, Olivia and I stared incredulously for a few minutes, feeling like we’d won the jackpot. Apparently, the hot springs were discovered by the Japanese (I’m sure Taiwanese people had found them earlier) during the time of occupation, and due to their love of hot springs and bath culture, they built a path leading up to them. But on this day, only a few people appeared to be indulging, so after somewhat hiding myself behind a thin tree to change into my bikini, we rushed down the steps to join them.

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I noticed a pair of gray Converse sneakers, similar to mine, resting next to the guard rail, and I swore that I’d seen them in out hostel in Hualien. Come to find out, two people from our hostel were there, along with a few middle-aged Taiwanese folk, who probably relax in the bubbling water on a regular basis.

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Photo courtesy of Olivia Chen 

My skin appears to be quite translucent in this photo (and in real life.) Some, as in Asians, may call it “beautiful,” while others, like my sister on Facebook, will ask, “Who is that ghostly white girl in the bikini?” Well, it doesn’t matter how white my skin is, because lying in the hot water on a bed of black sand mixed with bits of gold felt better than soaking in every public bathhouse in Korea. Combined. (And you know how much I love the mokyoktang.)

We lazed around in the teal water for two hours, chatted, dipped in the cold, stagnant water from the river, and gazed at the mountains in the distance. Olivia and I really wished we had brought some beer and snacks.

Around four PM, we forced ourselves to dry off and pack up to avoid missing the last bus back to Hualien city.

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As a traveler, I am constantly looking for “authentic” experiences, but I’ve learned that it’s best to travel with no expectations at all, so when I encounter a place like these “hidden” hot springs, I can remind yourself why I travel in the first place. And Olivia’s native Mandarin skills may have also had something to do with it…

 

Have you encountered unexpected surprises on your travels? What’s a place that exceeded your expectations?  

 

-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.

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